What Consumers Seem to Forget: My Reaction to W5’s “Factory Farming” Episode

photo courtesy of ebeyfarm.blogspot.com

Photo Courtesy of Vetscite.org

For those who didn’t tune in this weekend to an episode of CTV’s W5 on “factory farming”, let me sum it up for you: according to the episode hog farmers are heartless, sadist wretches that abuse and mistreat all their animals.

While attacks and misinformation on and about farming practices aren’t rare, this particular program was one-sided, made sweeping generalizations and provided zero balance. It also featured hidden camera footage from an animal activist who worked at a Manitoba hog barn for three months last year. While some of the events in the clips are appalling and are not acceptable, much of what was shown was edited down so as to eliminate all context. A panel of industry experts has since explained what is occurring in each clip — taken in context, much of what was shown is much less sensational.

Let’s ignore for a moment that whomever filmed this footage should have stepped in immediately if they saw animal abuse occurring but did not, and instead focus on a larger issue — consumers have an incredibly warped sense of livestock production. I well and truly believe that the average consumer has forgotten or is blissfully unaware that animals must first die before becoming meat. Also, I get the sense that consumers choose to disregard the fact that animals have minds of their own — they will get hurt, scratched, cut and far worse. They will also get sick, and need to be humanely euthanized. They have certain behaviours (like biting at a rail, pawing, head shaking) at feeding time. Just like how our babies cry when we vaccinate them, piglets squeal at being handled or treated. But we still do it. Why? Because vaccinating or treating a sickness has a benefit worth the risk of a sore arm and a screaming infant — why would we expect any different from animals? Consumers, it seems, have an unreasonable expectation of animal husbandry, plain and simple.

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Not all the things we do to animals (or ourselves and our children) in the name of health are pleasant, but we choose the least harmful way to do them. Yes, putting down a sow or calf is commonplace on the farm, but that doesn’t mean it’s pleasant or enjoyed. It’s still difficult, but farmers understand that allowing an animal to suffer is a far worse sin. Treating animals is important to keep them healthy. But these are animals, they aren’t handled daily, they aren’t pets. Anyone who has been around piglets knows that they will complain — loudly — when handled, even gently.

As an industry, agriculture invests heavily in research to develop scientifically-informed best management practices. Animal welfare is an important aspect of every livestock farm worth their salt. Are there those who mistreat their animals? Yes. Just like there are those who mistreat their pets. Should we hold them accountable? Absolutely. But is it reasonable to expect that livestock will never squeal, or get injured or have to be humanely euthanized? No.

It’s simply poor journalism that W5 did not include any balance in its program. As an industry, however, we also need to be available and offer up our side of the story perhaps before we’re even asked. There are shining examples of this — Farm and Food Care Ontario has virtual farm tours and responded to W5’s episode immediately. Manitoba’s Bruce D. Campbell Farm and Food Discovery Centre has hog production on full display for anyone who wants to learn more (yes, real live pigs!). Farmers need to use social media and blogs to share their story, even if it’s just in their own community, so that consumers understand that raising livestock is hard work, fraught with tough decisions but ultimately rewarding when done with respect and best management practices.

What do you think? How can agriculture share its story in a constructive way? Please leave a comment. Let’s talk about this. We need to.

 

 

Lyndsey Smith

Lyndsey Smith is a field editor for RealAgriculture. A self-proclaimed agnerd, Lyndsey is passionate about all things farming but is especially thrilled by agronomy and livestock production.

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19 Comments

Iain Robson

I think you are right Lyndsey. Farmers need to be more vocal about these types of things. They need to let people know what really happens on a farm. People need to know it isn’t all fun and games.

As you mentioned, social media is one of the best ways to spread the word about what is actually happening,

I think is in response also to what happened in the XL food plant in Western Canada.

How can agriculture share its story in a constructive way? I think farmers need to make a point of doing videos and having the public on their farms, so that we can see what really happens. Make people accountable I guess.

Those are my two cents

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Daryl

Say what you want but there is no way that any rational person would say that keeping a pig in a 2′ x 7′ stall with not enough room to turn around or even lie down it’s entire life is anything but torture, that’s why many other countries are banning them. I’m appalled that it is allowed in Canada.

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Iain Robson

Perhaps you are right, and they should be banned. I don’t disagree that it may not be the best way to do thing.

How do other countries run their hog farms then?

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Dan LeRoy

If individuals care to learn what is really going on in the farming sector they seek their information from realagriculture.com; not some sensationalized TV infotainment show narrated by a journalist who spent the bulk of his career covering wordly events from Montreal for the CBC and Radio-Canada.

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LCN

I support this post. As consumers we DO often forget livestock production is just that – PRODUCTION – and that animals must first die before becoming a consumable product. Abuse and neglect are unacceptable, however best practices and livestock management, as you said, are and have been heavily researched to foster utmost humanity and efficiency for farmers.

In addition, we also tend to forget farmers – at the unfortunate receiving end of public scrutiny – are 100% responsible for feeding US: consumers, families, cities, nations. We are privileged to gain visibility into daily lives of many farm families (in the name of building consumer confidence and education) – yet wouldn’t dare demand the same of other professions. When was the last time you demanded to see the research lab of leading pharmaceutical manufacturers?

I expected more of W5.

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Daryl

There is no research needed to know that keeping an animal completely encased in a small stall for it’s entire life is anything but abuse and terribly cruel. Try it sometime! You said it yourself “abuse is unacceptable.” If pork cannot be produced humainly then maybe it shouldn’t be produced at all.

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Brynn

What stuck out most in my mind while watching this video was “cheap pork”. How many consumers would be willing to pay more at the grocery store to help a pork farmer hire and train better employees and convert all of his gestation stalls.

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mchalvorsonag

just to be fair some of these clips are animal cruelty but as a farmer who raised hogs for 27 years its not fair to the farmer to say they are abusing there hogs. I know in all the time I had hogs things did happen that you might say was cruel (sow caught in a stall) but it was not by choice and when they said to put sows in a group setting some times it was worse for animal welfare pigs are a animal that set up a pecking order and when you added sows or hogs of any size for that matter you usaslly got fighting so it was better for the sow to put them in stalls for there good and then you could monitor them to make them healther.
Also if the consumer whats farm animals to be raised like free range they better be willing to pay more for the product because there probably will be a shortage

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Daryl

There are other ways of reducing aggression besides gestation crates that are equally effective. These include eliminating overcrowding, not mixing pigs from different litters, providing straw or other bedding material, and providing sufficient food that not only meets nutritional needs but satisfies the appetite.
Some farmers are certainly doing it this way and doing it successfully. I would and I do pay a premium price for my pork as I only buy local pork raised free range or from farms with group housing facilities.

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Brendan

A disconnect between consumers and reality? Yes, maybe. But not totally. A lot of this isn’t actually about cherry-picking bad on-site actions but are rather highlighting the product of the scale many of these farms operate at. They’ll claim it’s too expensive to change, or that the alternatives are worse, but who’s fault is that really? They deserve this bad press, even if CTV is overreacting over a piglet squeal.

I raise hogs, but nothing like this. This isn’t farming, and whatever it is, it’s not okay. Just like it wouldn’t be okay for me to hire asian slave labour to stich nike t-shirts, you can’t claim that the industry forces you to be like this or that it’s some kind of ‘necessary reality’ you are living in. It’s becoming common place to drive by ‘family farms’ that are housing thousands of heads in simply massive operations nestled behind private drives with agressive no trespassing signs. I see this all over southwestern Ontario. Operations are sometimes hidden in the back of treed lots too, why? I think we all know why, because if a ‘normal’ person saw this they would be honestly appalled. Farming is a business, yes, but let’s be honest here, we *are* talking about living creatures with cognitive abilities and we are pushing moral limits at the scale of most of these operations. Docking tails, teeth, and restraint bars are the product of necessity when you are running this large, but then why are you running this large? Escalade payments?

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Daryl

I couldn’t agree more, things have gotten out of control. These massive operations are strictly about money and what happens the pig does not really matter. Not to mention the chemical, bacterial, and viral compounds from animal waste going into rivers and lakes, and into the air and soil. Also in these facilities the use of antibiotics pesticides and growth hormones are much more prevalent. You sound like the type of farmer I could buy my pork from and enjoy it, knowing the animal didn’t suffer it’s entire life.

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kevin

Docking teeth,tails and restraint bars are for the comfort and health of the pigs. Mothers teats get raw and bloody from piglets needle teeth, they will chew on tails and restraint bars prevent the sows from laying on there offspring.Though it may look like a cage gestation stalls are there own little home with there own food,water and shelter from being abused by aggressive animals

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Brendan

I don’t disagree that docking teeth and tails + restraint bars are a necessity, but only a necessity of farming at such a huge scale where interaction with the animals is forced to be passive and automation becomes required. Hogs kept in smaller numbers per pen with more space do not exhibit stress behaviours like tail chewing. Piglet protection with bars and such is necessary for any captive hog, but when at large scales the design shifts to * suppression* of the sow rather than just a roll protector for piglets.

What get’s me (and this is what CTV points out pretty accurately as it’s main point) is that scales like this make it normal to look at these animals not as animals but as a commodity product and the “everyone else does it like this, this is the new normal, so I’m not the bad guy” attitude that this entire thread is filled with. The modern farmer has a tonne of insecurity and is eager to work any opportunity to seem more efficient than the next guy.

It’s obviously not practical for businesses or families who have invested heavily in this type of farming to just take out massive loans to sell less product. It’s like everyone knows this is wrong, but doesn’t want to say it. Legislation and major government funding to farmers to solve this problem is likely the only way out. I’m not sure everyone could turn to joining premium product co-ops to help pay for smaller yields.

Steve

What most of you guys don’t realize is that pig barns are totally enclosed and isolated from the public for health reasons. A pig can pick up a desease real quick and if they wouldn’t be so isolated there would a lot more outbreaks of bad deseases. That’s 1 of the reasons most barns are so stricked with no trespassing signs around their facilities.
Another thing when you mix sows as in group housing there will always be some major fighting happening and you have some badly beaten up animals in some of those groups cause there are always bully sows. That is one of the things that those animal activists never show pictures or videos about. It has been tested that sows prefer to be in a stall over being in one big pen with other sow. At least the sow in the crate can be protected from fighting and rest all day.

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Dennis L.

Growing up on a farm with pigs, a sow having just farrowed 10 or 12 babies is an awkward animal who wants to lay down to nurse her young. It was not unusual for the sow to lay on a piglet and crush or suffocate one or two of the litter. Our sows never spent their life in a crate, after all they are called farrowing stalls for a reason. Their purpose is to save the lives of her babies. Our sows were never in a stall for more than 2 or 3 weeks.

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